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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's choice for top U.S. spy declined on Thursday to call waterboarding "torture," only days after his attorney general nominee condemned the interrogation practice as precisely that.
Retired Adm. Dennis Blair replied cautiously when pressed on the waterboarding question at a hearing on his nomination to be director of national intelligence, of which the CIA is a part.
The caution reflected a public debate over whether to prosecute CIA employees who used the simulated drowning technique. Torture is banned by U.S. and international laws.
"There will be no waterboarding on my watch. There will be no torture on my watch," Blair said, refusing to go further.
In contrast, attorney general nominee Eric Holder flatly told his confirmation hearing last week, "Waterboarding is torture." The statement was a break from years in which Bush administration officials rejected that characterization.
Michigan Democratic Sen Carl Levin told Blair, "If the attorney general designee can answer it, you can too,"
Many of Obama's supporters have called for prosecuting CIA employees and officials for waterboarding, but spy agencies have sharply resisted, saying agents had acted only after getting Bush administration legal clearance.
Obama on Thursday moved to ban abusive interrogations, but suggested before he took office that he did not favor prosecutions. The CIA has acknowledged waterboarding three terrorism suspects and defended it as effective, but says it discontinued the technique in 2003.
"I don't mean to reopen those cases," Blair said. "I'm hesitating to set a standard here."
Blair said he did not want to jeopardize agents who thought they had legal approval. He later told reporters that agents who violated internal standards should be held accountable, and that an Obama task force overhauling interrogation policies would examine the past practices.
Reporting by Randall Mikkelsen, editing by Philip Barbara